Tom Hornbein and Willi Unsoeld

1963 was a time of great uncertainty for Tom Hornbein who was stationed in San Diego as a Navy doctor. It was at this point that he was invited to join the first American expedition to attempt the ascent of Mount Everest up the West ridge route. To this day this is regarded as one of the hardest sides to attempt the climb on.

It was through the help of a friend and future partner, Willi Unsoeld, that his future became set. Willi, who was to lead the Peace Corps within Nepal, was able to pull some strings allowing Hornbein to take an early discharge thus partaking in the first American expedition. Like Unsoeld, who was an already well known and legendary climber at that point, Horbein was an accomplished mountaineer who specialized in the Himalayan field and thus the climb was of particular interest. Interestingly, as a doctor, Hornbein had taken up the field of anesthesiology, researching the way the body reacts when exposed to high altitudes. With this research in hand Hornbein designed and allowed Maytag to produce an oxygen mask. Breathing now became easier and more effective than those in previous ascents who had adopted the standard pilot mask.

The time had come for the twenty-man team to attempt their climb up Mount Everest. Although Hornbein was a physician it was not required for him to dedicate himself to the assistance of climbers due to his stipulation wherein he requested help. In the end the team had three doctors allowing Hornbein the freedom to climb. It was to be the first simultaneous ascent attempted from two different directions. Tom Hornbein and Willi Unsoeld climbed in the direction of the West ridge route while Barry Bishop and Lute Jerstad took the already established route of the 1953 expedition by Hillary and Tenzing known as the South Col route. However Everest was not going to allow them easy passage without taking something back.

On May, 22 Hornbein and Unsoeld became the fifth and sixth team members to reach the summit of Everest, the result for two of the four men: Unsoeld lost nine toes due to frostbite, Bishop all ten plus the tips of his two baby fingers. Today, Hornbein is the soul survivor from the first successful American expedition.


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